Abraham & the Trade Routes From Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan

H. Abdul Al-Dahir

The Hebrew authors of Genesis who resided in Babylonia were very familiar with the Babylonian trade routes. The biblical Abraham story in Genesis, which these authors composed, has Abraham and his clan following one of two Babylonian trade routes; one of which ran from Babylonia along the Tigris to Haran located in Turkey to Tyre and then into Sidon. This ancient city of Haran has long been assumed to be the location where the clan settled and where Terah, Abraham’s biblical father, was buried. The word Haran is assumed to be derived from the Akkadian word harranu which means journey. The Akkadian word does not address Abraham’s family ties to the Arameans. According to Gen 24:4 and 25:20, Abraham’s kindred were located in a town of Aram Naharaiym or Aram of the two rivers, i.e., the Orontes and the Euphrates located in Syria. In addition Deut 26:5 states that the father of the Hebrews, Abraham, was a wandering Aramean or from Aram (modern day Syria).

According to the Bible, Abram et al were Arameans who were distinct from the Canaanites. According to Wikipedia: “The emergence of the Arameans occurred during the Bronze Age collapse (1200–900 BC), which saw great upheavals and mass movements of peoples across the Middle East, Asia Minor, The Caucasus, East Mediterranean, North Africa, Ancient Iran, Ancient Greece and Balkans, leading to the genesis of new peoples and polities across these regions…” Further, Wiki states that there were Arameans in Babylonia circa 1100 BCE when they deposed the ruling Babylonian dynasty of Nabu-shum-libur 1026 BC. According to Wikipedia:

“However, in southern Mesopotamia (a region corresponding with the old Dynasty of the Sealand), Dynasty V (1025–1004 BC) arose, this was ruled by Simbar-shipak, leader of a Kassite clan, and was in effect a separate state from Babylon. The state of anarchy allowed the Assyrian ruler Ashur-nirari IV (1019–1013 BC) the opportunity to attack Babylonia in 1018 BC, and he invaded and captured the Babylonian city of Atlila and some northern regions for Assyria.

The south Mesopotamian dynasty was replaced by another Kassite Dynasty (Dynasty VI; 1003–984 BC) which also seems to have regained control over Babylon itself. The Elamites deposed this brief Kassite revival, with king Mar-biti-apla-usur founding Dynasty VII (984–977 BC). However, this dynasty too fell, when the Arameans once more ravaged Babylon.

Babylonian rule was restored by Nabû-mukin-apli in 977 BC, ushering in Dynasty VIII. Dynasty IX begins with Ninurta-kudurri-usur II, who ruled from 941 BC. Babylonia remained weak during this period, with whole areas of Babylonia now under firm Aramean and Sutean control. Babylonian rulers were often forced to bow to pressure from Assyria and Elam, both of which had appropriated Babylonian territory.

Assyrian rule, 911–619 BC
Babylonia remained in a state of chaos as the 10th century BC drew to a close. A further migration of nomads from the Levant occurred in the early 9th century BC with the arrival of the Chaldeans, another nomadic northwest Semitic people described in Assyrian annals as the “Kaldu”. The Chaldeans settled in the far southeast of Babylonia, joining the already long extant Arameans and Suteans. By 850 BC the migrant Chaldeans had established their own land in the extreme south east of Mesopotamia.”

The Kaldu remained in control until the Babylonian king Nabonassar overthrew the Chaldean usurpers in 748 BC. The Assyrians overthrew Nabonessar and the history continues from there. So, it appears that at least a few clans of Arameans migrated back to Aram when the Kaldu gained control of Babylonia. It is likely that the Ur of the Kaldu/Chaldeans (Kassidy) in southern Babylonia was the area in which the clan of Abram were settled before they were forced out by the Kaldu.

According to the biblical account, Abram et al followed the Tigris trade route which ran from Babylonia to Haran to Tyre and then to Sidon. However, the southern route Abram followed from Haran (after Terah’s demise), was the King’s Highway which ran through Damascus and into Hazor then into Shechem where he followed the Way of the Patriarchs into Jerusalem and then into Hebron.

The point, of course, is that, according to the biblical account, Abram et al were in Babylonia until at least the 9th Century BCE, so he could not have been in Canaan or Egypt before this date. Furthermore, according to the tale in Genesis, Abram was settled in Bethel before famine forced him to journey to Egypt with Sarai where the whole pharaoh episode took place. The route he would have used for this journey would have been the Via Maris which ran along the Mediterranean Sea. In any case, the point is that the Aramean clan of Abram was never in Canaan or Egypt during the Bronze Age. Arameans did not emerge as a people until the late Bronze Age. The bible is very clear as to when Abram entered Canaan which would have been after he left Kaldu controlled Babylonia (Ur of the Chaldees in the Bible) or circa the 9th Century BCE. His clan did not enter Canaan until after the 9th Century BCE which agrees with Finkelstein’s assessment of the Aramaean entrance into Canaan.

An alternate scenario has Abram et al following a different route. This proposal depends on the interpretation of the word Haran, thought to be a an ancient city located in modern day Turkey. Haran or charan means  journey in Akkadian but parched, arid in Hebrew. The Babylonian trade route that ran along the Tigris does not match the description of the Hebrew meaning as it never crosses a desert. There is another Babylonian trade route that ran from Babylonia thru Damascus and into Edom, a kingdom that bordered southern Canaan. Goods from Edom crossed the Sinai and then travelled into Egypt. This latter Babylonian trade route trails through many desert areas and fits the meaning of the word charan meaning parched, arid in Hebrew.

The most ancient route was the one through Syria. “Ships from India crept along the Asiatic shore to the Persian Gulf and sold their costly freights in the marts of Chaldea or the lower Euphrates. The main caravan passed thence northward through Mesopotamia, edged round the wastes of Arabia Petraea, and struck west through the lesser desert to the oasis where, amid the Solitudo Palmyrena, the city of Tadmor eventually arose. Plunging again into the sands, the train of camels emerged at Damascus. There the Syrian trade-route parted into two main lines. The northern branched west to the ancient Tyre and Sidon and the medieval Acre and Ascalon. The other diverged southward by Rabbah, or Rabbath Ammon of the Old Testament, the Rabbatamana of Polybius, which is still locally known as Amman, and skirting the eastern frontier of Palestine passed through the land of Edom toward Egypt and the shores of the Red Sea. Its halting-places can still be traced. Thousands of Mussulmans travel yearly down the Barb-al-Hajj, or pilgrim way, by almost, although not exactly, the same route as that followed by the Indo-Syrian trade thirty centuries ago – no made road, but a track beaten hollow at places by the camels’ tread.

The dawn of history discloses the Syrian trade-routes in the hands of Semitic races. The Chaldean or Babylonian merchants who bought up the Indian cargoes on the Persian Gulf, the half-nomad tribes who led the caravan from oasis to oasis around the margin of the central desert to Tyre or to the Nile, the Phoenician mariners who distributed the precious freights to the Mediterranean cities, were all of the Semitic type of mankind. The civilization of ancient Egypt created the first great demand for the embalming spices, dyes, and fine products of the East. But as early as the fall of Troy (1184? B.C.), if we may still connect a date with the Aeolic saga, Phoenician seamen had conveyed them northwards to Asia Minor and the Aegean Sea. Homer does not mention the name of India, but he was acquainted with the art-wares of Sidon, a Mediterranean outport of the Eastern trade. It was, however, in Egypt that the products of the Syrian caravan routes, and the possibly still earlier merchandise of Somaliland and the African littoral, found their chief market.

An emporium, perhaps originally a convict settlement from the Nile, sprang up at Rhinoculora, where the coast-line of Palestine adjoins Egypt. It probably received the traffic seawards from Tyre and by more than one land route through Palestine, and passed on the reunited volume of the Eastern trade to the neighbouring Nile valley. The Phoenician mariners of the Levant carried their alphabet, apparently derived from Egypt, to Greece and the countries around the Mediterranean Sea; the Sabwans of the Persian Gulf gave a cognate form of the same alphabet to India and the nations bordering on the Indian Ocean.

As the Phoenicians held the northern outports of the Syrian trade-route toward Europe, so the Edomites commanded its southern outlet toward Egypt. The Hebrews, also a Semitic race, occupied the country between the two, and the earliest traditions, not less than the verified history, of Israel, are intimately connected with Eastern commerce. The geography of Genesis is the geography of the Syrian trade-route; one of its most picturesque episodes, the sale of Joseph by his brethren, is an incident of the caravan journey. Abraham starts from the Chaldean, or Euphrates, end of the route near the Persian Gulf, and in four generations his descendants are settled at its south-western terminus on the Nile. The intermediate regions thus traversed formed the heritage promised to his seed, “from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.” This covenant is renewed in more precise terms in Deuteronomy, and grants to the Israelites the whole countries of the caravan route from the Euphrates on the east to the Mediterranean on the west, with Lebanon in Phoenicia as their northern, and the desert as their southern, boundary. The emporiums on the main branches of the Syrian route find mention in the Pentateuch, from Tyre, Sidon, and Damascus, down through Rabbah, Bozrah, and Edom toward the Egyptian and Red Sea end.”

The Babylonian Damascus Edom trade route matches the meaning of Charan which means arid, parched. This trade route which ends in Edom also matches the localities associated with Abraham including his family ties to Aram which he refers to as ‘my country ” in Gen 24:4. Abraham is most consistently associated with places located in southern Canaan, Edom and Moab. These places include the Salt Sea, Siddim, Bethel, Hebron and the plain of Mamre where he made the covenant. Lot, his nephew, fathered the southern nations of Moabites and Ammonites and Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, fathered the Edomites. So, the route that Abraham’s clan travelled is contested as it could be the Babylonian trade route that ran along the Tigris into Turkey or the Babylonian-Damascus trade route that ran thru Charan or the Syrian desert to Damascus and from there into Edom.

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